Father-child bond

Psychologist Andreas Eickhorst explains how a good father-child relationship develops

Building a secure relationship begins at birth

A typical situation: father and child travel by train together. Child nags - father doesn't react. The child starts screaming, the father screams back. An observer might think this is a bad father-child relationship. But is it? In any case, the topic of bonding is much discussed. Prof. Dr. Andreas Eickhorst explains what it's all about.

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Everyone is talking about attachment, attachment anxiety and attachment disorders. But is everything we refer to as attachment in everyday life also attachment in the scientific sense?

You're right, we like to talk about attachment in everyday life, but the term actually means something much more complex than we initially think. Your example shows this quite well: we see a father interacting with a child and conclude from this whether the bond is good or bad. However, bonding is actually a complex behavioral program that is based on a large number of individual interactions. A brief observation such as the one during the train journey is therefore not at all representative for judging attachment. In principle, you can say that it takes a very long time to build up a secure attachment, but it is also correspondingly difficult to break it down again.

You just used the word "secure". Are there also "insecure" bonds? And how does a father-child bond develop in the first place?

In fact, we don't talk about good and bad bonds, but about secure and insecure ones. The bond between father and child begins at birth. The baby is helpless and dependent on protection - for example from the father. It seeks comfort, closeness and security and expresses this by crying, for example. This usually activates the father to react quickly. A secure attachment develops when the father satisfies the child's needs. It is important that this happens in a certain way: Firstly, promptly - i.e. not an hour later - secondly, appropriately - i.e. when the child is hungry, also feeding it and not just comforting it - and thirdly, reliably - i.e. that the father does not react sometimes with affection and sometimes with aversion. When all this happens, a secure bond develops between father and child. Here, the quality is more important than the quantity of interactions. Even if the father and child only see each other once a week, this does not in itself prevent a secure bond from developing. However, if the father's behavior is ambivalent and not reliable for the child, the child reacts with a protective mechanism. Because their expectations are not met, they invest less in the relationship in order to protect themselves from further disappointment. In this case, we speak of an insecure father-child bond. And this can also arise if the father and child see and interact with each other on a daily basis.

Does this bond change over the course of a child's life? For example, is it stronger when the child is still small and then decreases as the child gets older?

The bond itself does not change; once established, it is relatively stable. What changes is its significance. If the father is the sole caregiver, for example because the mother dies at birth and the father and child then live somewhere isolated, the child's dependence on the father is correspondingly high and the bond is omnipotent. In general, however, the older a child gets, the more people it gets to know (for example at nursery or school), with whom it then builds up a bond. The fact that there are now other contacts means that the bond with the father is no longer as central. During puberty, the circle of friends seems much more important, followed later by the partner. However, none of these changes affect the actual father-child bond. This remains as stable or unstable as it was built up - unless it is damaged by trauma.

When you say trauma, do you primarily mean violence or sexual assault? And are there other events that can damage the father-child bond?

The examples you mentioned are clearly traumas. But trauma can also occur, for example, when contact with the father suddenly breaks off and the child is unable to understand and process this. Children often blame themselves for the separation of their parents, they don't understand that there are also factors outside the mother-father-child relationship that caused the separation. If contact between father and child breaks off after the separation without the mother explaining to the child why, this can cause trauma and damage the father-child bond. In the case of attachment disorders - i.e. when father and child do not interact as an attachment relationship at all - therapy can be used to try to at least establish a functional bond. Parenting counseling or parent-infant counseling, which can be found in every major city, are the first places to go.

Now we've been talking about father-child bonding all this time. The mother-child bond is particularly important here. She carries the baby and breastfeeds it. Is this bond therefore stronger than the bond between father and child?

Scientifically, there is no proof of this. The bonding characteristics are equally pronounced in mothers and fathers and the bonding patterns are also the same. Both release the bonding hormone oxytocin in their brains, for example when they hold a crying child in their arms. Both bonds are absolutely equal. Nature has cleverly devised this, as the father can to a certain extent replace the mother when she dies, for example. However, the nature of the bond is different and the promotion of exploration is more central than with the mother. This also has to do with our (still) current social pattern of dividing up work and roles: This can lead to a mother being more likely to comfort the child and the father just interacting in a strongly playful-explorative way. Scientists have also found that if there is a secure father-child bond from the outset, this has a positive effect on development. These children are then better able to build a secure bond with their partner later on

About the person

Prof. Dr. Andreas Eickhorst is a developmental psychologist and professor of "Psychological Foundations of Social Work" at Hanover University of Applied Sciences and Arts. His diploma thesis already dealt with father-infant interactions and theories of fatherhood. He has remained true to this topic and has since worked in areas such as father research, parent-child interactions and family psychology.

Where can we find help and advice?

If you have the feeling that you are finding it difficult to bond with your child, don't be afraid to seek outside help. You can contact one of the 270 or so parent and family advice centers in North Rhine-Westphalia at any time with questions and concerns. You can find a counselling centre near you by searching online or using the search engine on the portal of the DAJEB Deutsche Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Jugend- und Eheberatung e.V.

The Männerberatungsnetz bundles counselling services that specialize in the concerns and conflicts of boys, men and fathers. You can use the counseling map to find a counseling service near you.

Why the first attachment is particularly important and how you can strengthen the bond with your child, you will find many tips and materials on the Parenting portal from the National Center for Early Intervention.

The Kindergesundheit-Info portal of the Federal Center for Health Education has also compiled information and tips on the development of the bonding relationship in the first 12 months.


Personal stories and experiences from fathers in NRW can be found on our YouTube channel in the "Active Fatherhood" playlist.